May 15, 2008 / 3:16 PM / 12 years ago

Sichuan migrant workers anxious about quake-hit homes

BEIJING (Reuters) - Unlike many in Beijing, Ye Shao did not feel a thing when China’s most ruinous earthquake in decades struck in her home province of Sichuan on Monday, sending shockwaves that panicked residents from Shanghai to Bangkok.

Local residents look for survivors in the ruins of the destroyed old city district near a mountain at the earthquake-hit Beichuan county, Sichuan province, May 15, 2008. REUTERS/Jason Lee

“I was delivering vegetables at the time, but I thought it strange that all these people were running out of buildings on to the street,” Ye said.

Four agonising hours later, Ye thanked heaven her parents, who live about 100 km from the epicentre at Sichuan’s Wenchuan county, were outdoors when the quake hit.

“They are now living in tents in an open field. Our family home is ruined. Of course, I’m worried for them, because I’ve heard there may be more aftershocks,” said Ye.

As state media reported on Thursday that the death toll from the 7.9 magnitude quake could rise to more than 50,000, Sichuan migrant workers in Beijing talked gloomily of broken homes, dead neighbours and fears for relatives living in desperation.

Forming a large part of China’s 150 million surplus rural workers, whose cheap labour has fuelled blistering economic growth, millions of Sichuanese have migrated more than 1,000 miles to work in booming cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

Many have left spouses and children in poor villages at home in a bid to better their prospects.

Now, as images of flattened villages appear on television screens around the clock, many are determined to go back.

“I soon as I pick up my wages tomorrow, I’m getting on a train to Chengdu,” said Wang, a former farmer who migrated to Beijing two years ago and now works as a security guard.

Wang’s wife and 3-year-old son are now living in a tent with many other homeless from the outskirts of Mianyang city, in a region where more than 8,000 people have died. Thousands remain buried.

“I know many people there have died, many children. But I have to go back. I am so worried for my family,” he said.

Wang will arrive as more than 100,000 troops and armed police work frantically to dig out survivors and keep order amidst tens of thousands of frustrated homeless.

Thousands of ordinary Chinese have also joined government-led relief efforts, from donating blood and cash, to driving their cars into quake-hit areas to hand out food and bottles of water to homeless begging for relief.

The well-intentioned outpouring of good will and sympathy has nonetheless alarmed authorities who have urged untrained volunteers streaming into the remote valleys and villages of Sichuan to stay home and not get in the way.

Authorities in Shanghai have also asked Sichuan migrant workers to stay in the city, and refrain from returning home.

Bao Sheng, an office worker from Sichuan’s capital Chengdu, said he was “extremely grateful” to the government, but said he still wanted to get back to his home town.

“Luckily my parents are safe now, they’re joining in the rescue team to help others, though I do wish they could come to Beijing,” Bao said.

Wang, who may lose his job in Beijing, on top of losing his house, to care for his family, was even more resolute.

“I think the government had done a good job. But we can’t rely on the government. We have to rely on ourselves.”

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